In New York’s rarified Republican enclaves, where a Donald Trump candidacy has been about as welcome as bedbugs, people are starting to take seriously that The Donald could face off against Hillary Clinton next year. A surprising number admit sotto voce: they might vote for Trump.
Pundits have not received that message. The conventional wisdom holds, especially in light of his recent remarks about banning Muslims temporarily from entering the country: nominating Donald Trump would be a disaster for Republicans. Politicos on both sides of the aisle predict that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency in a landslide, that Democrats would retake the Senate and likely gain ground in the House. Greybeards liken such an outcome to the Great Goldwater Defeat of 1964. Could they be wrong?
The anti-Trump brigade just got some booster fuel. Trump has called for a halt to Muslims entering the country until our “representatives can figure out what’s going on.” The response was predictable: condemnation here and abroad. Except, that is, at a rally in South Carolina, where Trump earned a standing ovation.
The truth is many Americans do not believe that President Obama has the policies in place to protect us against radical Islamic terrorists. They hope that Trump will. And they see no harm in taking a time-out to determine if our immigration processes are sufficiently rigorous to keep out potential attackers. (Which is, actually, what Trump called for.)
Americans are not convinced that inviting 25,000 Syrian refugees into our country is in our best interests. Texas Representative Michael McCaul, Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, recently said that our intelligence agencies have “direct evidence” that ISIS thugs have tried to infiltrate the Syria refugee program to gain entry into the U.S., just as they apparently have done in Europe.
At the same time, it is clear that our visa programs and ability to ferret out potential murderers like San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik are flawed. And, we apparently don’t have a great handle on potential terrorists already in our country. FBI head James Comey has said there are over 900 investigations currently underway in 50 states involving ISIS sympathizers. So maybe Trump has a point--law enforcement has its hands full.
In the past, such hard line comments from Trump have boosted his polling; we’ll soon learn whether this time he has simply gone too far. A country founded by those seeking religious freedom will not embrace discrimination against Muslims. But, many may buy Trump’s underlying assertion that the Obama White House has been so concerned about political correctness that it has failed to confront the threat from radical Islam.
The question is whether Trump’s following is broader than the 36 percent of GOP primary voters now supporting him. What about independents, or some of the blue-collar voters who historically line up behind Democrats? Bottom line, can he beat Hillary?
Polling shows Trump’s followers to be less well educated than the average Republican, with half holding a high school education or less, and to be from all income brackets. About half are women. Trump’s backers are older than average voters are -- 84 percent are over the age of 45. Finally, not everyone backing Trump is conservative, but most tend to be right leaning.
Those figures could spell trouble for Hillary. First, Democratic voters tend to have had less schooling than Republicans. If Trump appeals to non-college graduates, he would be undermining a mainstay Democrat constituency. Second, female voters are the backbone of Clinton’s quest to be the nation’s first woman president. The former first lady’s support from Democrat women has tumbled. If even a small step up for Trump, Hillary goes down. Finally, older voters reliably turn out. This reality emphasizes the need for Clinton to attract and motivate young voters, which she has so far failed to do.
A September SurveyUSA poll showed Trump to have surprising support from blacks (25 percent - far more than the 5 percent Romney reportedly won) and even from Hispanics (31 percent, compared to Romney’s 27 percent share.) In that poll, Trump edged out Hillary Clinton by 5 points, even though he scored 20 points lower with women.
Where Trump would undoubtedly beat Hillary is with working class white men (some of these categories overlap). This group has been defecting from Democrats for some time, but Hillary is especially unpopular with white males, many of whom support Trump. An October Quinnipiac poll reported Clinton’s negative ratings with white men at a shocking 72 percent, way worse than the Democratic Party’s overall standing with that demographic group. Trump’s focus on bringing jobs back to the U.S. resonates.
A recent Monmouth poll shows that among those who regularly vote in GOP caucuses, Cruz is now ahead of Trump in Iowa, 24 percent to 19 percent. However, Monmouth's pollsters report that a survey of those less likely to participate in Republican primaries put Trump in the lead. That finding echoed a CNN poll, also recently conducted, which showed Trump topping the field. It may be that Trump is attracting Republicans who have never been engaged before or that some of those folks are Democrats and Independents.
It is, of course, early days. A recent piece in The Atlantic noted that at this point in the 2012 cycle Herman Cain was the front-runner for the GOP nomination. They point out that “a year before the general election, most voters aren’t paying attention yet.” That may have been true in the past, but the startling number of people watching the Republican debates suggests that a great many Americans have tuned in. Whether voter turnout will reflect that increased engagement, and whether Donald Trump will continue to prosper, remains to be seen. But, it is surely too early – and too risky -- to count him out.